This year, many of us have been given the opportunity to spend a lot more time in peaceful self-contemplation at home. Which has absolutely sucked. The artist Gillian Wearing has produced many self portraits in lockdown. Some oil on canvas, some watercolour, and all with a striking atmosphere of quiet, watchful despair.
In each of the fourteen self portraits on show at Maureen Paley, plus one I saw at the the Royal Academy, Wearing’s painted image seems to be waiting for something. Hair in a centre parting, sometimes a bit messy; eyes wide open; mouth downcast. There isn’t explicit distress on these faces, more like a quiet forbearance. I found them deeply relatable, contemplating another empty afternoon in the flat ahead once I’d cycled back home. With nothing to do other than watch the news conference announcing the next lockdown.
Untitled (lockdown portrait)
Wearing is a clear-eyed but quite pitiless observer as a painter. A Guardian review of the show reveals that she did quite a lot of the paintings with a mirror, while others were painted from photographs - an extra remove. They are images of images, not drawn from life.
“Having represented myself in photography both as myself and as others, I wanted to see how paint and even the manner of painting could change my appearance,” Wearing says. “These new portraits provide a record of my time spent in lockdown and are an exploration of my image depicted in isolated concentration.”
Isolated concentration? That’s true, that’s part of it. Concentration - in that she’s watching something. Isolated, in that she’s alone. But behind all that is something bigger, something that informs both the hand that paints and the eye that views: this relentless, killer, world-changing pandemic.
Pretty fitting that I saw this show on its last weekend, before it closed. Just before all of London’s other galleries close, with another lockdown. Hopefully Wearing keeps painting these. And we can look forward to viewing them from a different perspective - the future - where they can be seen as historical relics of a troubled time.
Gillian Wearing: Lockdown is at Maureen Paley (London). 16 September - 01 November 2020